Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  His conscience told him he could give up the idea now and send the girl back, unsullied in body and reputation, to her father. It was not too late to do the honorable thing. But that devil, the devil that ruled his sexual impulses, was rampant in him, and not to be gainsaid. He crossed the floor and put his arms around Rosamund.

  “I want you to stay here with me,” he said hoarsely, as he felt her body stiffen. His own was stiffening too, not out of alarm, but from lust. He felt he was in paradise, holding her so close. He had not wanted a woman so much since he first set eyes on Eleanor. He thrust the thought of Eleanor away quickly.

  “Lord King, I beg of you …” Rosamund whispered, her breath coming in little gasps. “It would be wrong!”

  “Is loving someone so very wrong?” Henry asked. “I think I have loved you since the moment I saw you. Your father gave me permission to bring you here—and here we are.” And may God forgive me the deception, he thought. The devil in him stirred again.

  “My father? I thought I was to serve the Queen, sire?” Her eyes were wide with incomprehension.

  “And so you are, in due course. But your father knows that royal favor and preferment can be won in many different ways,” Henry said. “He has entrusted you to my care, and I have undertaken to find you a husband in due course.” Perish the thought! “But for now, all I want is to serve you, and make you mine. Will you be mine, Rosamund?”

  He saw, to his consternation, that she was weeping.

  “Do not cry, sweeting,” he murmured, stroking her hair. “All will be well, you have my word on it. I will cherish and protect you, never fear.”

  He tipped her chin up with his finger and looked down into her wet blue eyes. God, how lovely she was!

  “Could you love me a little?” he asked her. “I think you do!”

  She stared at him as if drinking him in. “I do not know,” she whispered. “I cannot. It would be wrong. I find it hard to believe that my father meant for me to become your leman, Lord King. I cannot bring dishonor on my house. It would be a sin, and we would both burn in Hell for it.”

  “Fairy tales for children!” Henry scoffed. “But even if there were a Hell, I would gladly burn in it for all eternity for just one night with you.”

  “There is a Hell!” she assured him, with some spirit.

  “What a little nun they have made of you,” he teased, pressing her closer to him. “Listen, Rosamund, the only Hell is the one we make for ourselves on this earth. The rest is just a myth put about by the Church to frighten us into being good.”

  She recoiled from him, and he let her go.

  “I fear that is blasphemy, Lord King,” she whispered.

  “It’s one of my many vices,” he replied cheerfully.

  “I must not gainsay you, sire, but I think you are in error.” She looked like a terrified rabbit. Henry roared with laughter.

  “There speaks the abbess in the making!” he chuckled. “Well, virtuous maiden, I will leave you to your chaste bed. We will talk some more tomorrow.” In truth, his desire had subsided with his laughter, but he knew when to leave well enough alone. He raised her hand and kissed it in courtly fashion, then gazed up into her incredible eyes.

  “Until then, fair Rosamund,” he said, and was gone.

  Rosamund had not known until now what it was to want a man. In fact, having been living in a convent since she was eleven, she was more or less ignorant of what passed within the marriage bed; she only knew that it was rather naughty, and that you had to let your husband do this naughty thing without complaining or resisting. This she had learned from the whispered confidences of the other girls of gentle birth entrusted to Godstow’s care.

  She had grown up knowing that a suitable husband would one day be found for her, and always imagined—if she thought about it at all—that he would be around the same age as herself, which was nonsense, really, because plenty of her kind ended up with older—or even aging—spouses.

  But here was the King, old enough to be her father, a loud, rough, brisk, and in some ways alarming man, and something inside her was responding strangely and powerfully to him. He was not handsome like the knights in tales of chivalry, but stocky and thickset, with a tousled head of red hair, a rough man, but attractive in that foreign, Gallic way, with an overpowering physical presence. Like Eleanor, fourteen years before, Rosamund had looked once and fallen headily for him.

  If this wanting feeling, this uncontrollable tension between her thighs, this sudden sweet awareness of her body, was desire, then all of a sudden she could understand why people did mad things for love: why knights fought dragons, or maidens languished in towers … or convent-educated girls compromised their virtue as, yes, even she was tempted to do.

  She had said all the right things, all the things that a virtuous girl should say to an overbold, predatory male. She had put up a convincing display of maidenly modesty. Yet underneath it all there had been the urgent and enchanting dictates of her body, compelling her to surrender, and the excited response of a young mind flattered that a king should say he loved her. It was an irresistible combination. She did not delude herself that she loved the King in return; immature though she was, she suspected that he might well have used the word “love” merely to cozen her. She had no idea what love really felt like. Certainly it did not appear to exist between most of the married couples she had seen. She had been taught that it was a wife’s duty to love the husband chosen for her, but that was not the kind of love that drove men to distraction, or sent them on quests, or made them fight duels.

  Her mind was in a ferment. What if this were the only opportunity she would ever have of knowing that kind of love? Should she not seize it with both hands, and follow the demands of the flesh?

  She fell asleep wondering what it would be like to lie in the arms of the King of England.

  29

  Angers, 1165

  Eleanor was lying in after her confinement, cradling her newborn daughter, Joanna, in her arms, when a letter arrived from Champagne. She opened it with trembling fingers, supporting the baby against her shoulder, and read the neat, pointed script of some unknown clerk. Her daughter Marie politely sent her greetings and inquired after her mother’s health. She herself was well and happy, and wished Madame the Queen to know that she remembered her in her prayers.

  That was all, but it was something, and it was more than she had received from Alix, who could not have remembered her in any case. It was but little, but it was something—something she could build on.

  30

  Woodstock, 1165–66

  The siege did not last long. When the last defense had been torn down, Henry came to Rosamund in her silken bower, and she received him with open arms. She was tight when he entered her, and gasped a little as her maidenhead fractured, but thereafter she twined herself sinuously around him as if she would never let go. Afterward he lay there with his head on her breasts, stroking her firm, flat belly and thinking that it had been a long time since he had experienced such joy with a woman. Pleasure, yes—but not this surging tide of delight and well-being. Once, he had known a similar joy with Eleanor, and something of that survived still, when they were together; but when he was apart from her, he felt detached and even hostile.

  He would not think of Eleanor now, not when his fair Rosamund lay beneath him, his for the taking again as soon as he caught his breath and rested a bit. Rosamund, whose blond tresses lay tangled across them both, tickling his cheek, and whose straight limbs with their pearly sheen lay stretched out with abandon. His fingers crept to the cleft of her sex, parted it and slid farther, as her eyes widened in surprise and she began to moan with unexpected pleasure. God, she was beautiful, he thought, raising himself on one muscular elbow and raking her with his gaze as his kneading became more insistent—beautiful in a different way from Eleanor, for there was a fragility about Rosamund, and an innate delicacy. She was aptly named, with her petal-soft skin and her rosy cheeks! He knew he could never bear to b
e parted from her.

  Henry could not leave Rosamund alone. He kept wanting her, at all hours of the day and night, and exulted in the breathless fervor with which she returned his ardor. Yet, so young and inexperienced was his love, for all her growing artfulness in bed, that every time they made love it seemed like the first time—as if he were deflowering her all over again. It was utterly irresistible!

  He tarried at Woodstock all through the autumn, kept Christmas there, then made excuses to stay until the spring. He called in masons and master builders to construct a new tower for his lady, and gardeners to lay out a labyrinth for her delight, planting the young hedges of yew and briar in an intricate circular pattern. He knew that the time would come when he must leave Rosamund, and that she would be lonely and in need of recreation, and with the summer coming, this maze would divert her and the damsels he had appointed to wait on her. It never occurred to him that, one day, it would become the source of many rumors and legends.

  When he wasn’t dallying in bed with Rosamund, Henry was hard at work formulating his planned legal reforms, and in the depths of winter he went to meet with his Great Council at Clarendon, where his new Constitutions, as he was pleased to call them, became law. One in particular gave him great satisfaction, for it meant that Becket’s criminous clerks would no longer be entitled to claim benefit of clergy. Henry had won his long, hard battle—but he doubted he had won the war.

  The wounds dealt by Thomas still festered. Lying awake at night, he would torment himself by reliving the heady days of their friendship, or engage in bitter disputes with the absent Archbishop, saying all the clever things he wished he had said at the time. Occasionally, with Rosamund sleeping peacefully beside him, he would let the tears fall, and wonder when he would ever be free of this turmoil. He had loved Thomas—so why had Thomas defied and abandoned him? At such times he would reach out for the sweet girl lying beside him and try to lose himself in her, to blot out the pain and the anger. He never discussed Becket with her; he did not want to sully her purity by unburdening himself. She was his refuge, his peace, his joy: that was all he needed from her.

  He could no longer tarry: he was needed in Maine, to quell some godforsaken rebel vassals; his ships were even now waiting at Southampton.

  He kissed Rosamund long and lovingly in farewell, his heart aching. God knew when he would see her again. She stood on the mounting block, slender and utterly alluring in her soft wool gown, and lifted the stirrup cup to him as he sat on his horse at the head of his retinue, ready to depart. He made himself say his last good-bye, his voice gruff with emotion. Parting with her was unbearable, tragic, not to be borne …

  He rode south determinedly, making good time, but they had not gone far when, driven by his unspeakable need, he suddenly wheeled about and cantered back toward Woodstock, his astonished train in his wake, struggling to keep up. When they arrived, he leaped off his lathered steed, raced up the spiral stairs two at a time, and burst into Rosamund’s chamber, scattering her women with a wave of his hand. As soon as the door banged behind them, he crushed her to him, devouring her with kisses.

  “I had to come back to you, to see you one more time!” he gasped.

  Rosamund was momentarily too stunned to respond.

  “What will people think? That I keep you from your royal duties?” she asked, sounding panicked, but letting him do with her as he would.

  “I care not a fig for what they think!” Henry growled. “All I know is that I have to have you once more before I cross the sea. I had to see your face, oh my darling!” His hands were everywhere, his eyes were drinking her in. He was desperate to bed her, could wait no longer. As they tumbled between the sheets, the outside world forgotten, downstairs in the hall and the courtyard, the King’s household officers and men-at-arms exchanged knowing glances, then shrugged and grinned at one another.

  31

  Angers, 1166

  Eleanor saw Henry and his long line of followers approaching as she was taking the air on the battlements of the castle of Angers. She paused and stared. So he had come at last. Finally, he had bestirred himself and remembered that he had a wife. There was bitterness in her heart. She had not set eyes on him in more than a year; he had not come to greet his new daughter, Joanna, and had not even come for Christmas. That was a cruel blow, for never before had they spent a Christmas apart, and she had still been under the impression that things were mending between them. He could at least have thought of the children’s disappointment, if not hers, she thought, aggrieved.

  She had wondered if Henry heard wanton talk of her closeness to her uncle Raoul, or if Jean aux Bellesmains had blabbed of his damned suspicions. Or, worse still, had Raoul kept something back when he had spoken of Henry having other women? That would hardly be surprising, given her reaction. But supposing there was another woman? If a love affair was the cause of Henry abandoning his wife and family for so long, then it surely posed a serious threat to all that she held dear. The prospect was nightmarish, and she had worn herself down with wondering and playing out horrible what-if scenarios in her mind. She wished she could let it all go and not care, but that was proving impossible.

  For the thousandth time she pulled herself up. Henry was a king, and, in the wider scale of things, women meant little to him beside his vision for his kingdom and the demands of his far-flung domains. Had that not been the case, his amours would have been notorious rather than discreet, and she would surely have known about them. He was not the kind of man to let a female sway or rule him. Even she herself, his queen, had been kept firmly in what he perceived to be her place, much to her chagrin. No, Henry would not shirk his duties and obligations for so long just for the sake of a woman. And if he had heard evil gossip about his wife, he would no doubt have acted upon it, much as he had all those years ago when he banished that poor fool, Bernard de Ventadour; he would never tolerate any hint of scandal attaching itself to his own.

  Having reasoned yet again with herself, she realized that she was no nearer to understanding what was going on than she had been before, and, with her thoughts in turmoil, smoothed her skirts, adjusted her veil and circlet, and descended the stairs to greet her husband.

  They faced each other across the polished wooden table in the solar. Henry’s eyes were wary. He looked almost sheepish, guilty even. Her heart plummeted and again she wondered why he had come.

  “I trust you had a good journey,” she said, for the second time, betraying how nervous she was. “Some wine?”

  Henry sat down, kicked off his boots, and gratefully accepted the goblet.

  “I trust you are well, Eleanor,” he said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get here earlier. I was at Clarendon, making sure that my new laws will be properly enforced.”

  That had been back in January. It was now Easter. What had he been doing in the meantime? His ships had been waiting at Southampton for weeks.

  “I regret you had all that trouble with my barons in Maine,” Henry was saying.

  “I have never been treated with such contempt!” Eleanor fumed, anger flaring at the remembrance, and momentarily distracting her from her fears. “Your Norman captains refused to heed my orders. They said they would not take them from a woman.”

  “I know, I know,” Henry admitted. “They had no right to say that, and they will be called to account, you may depend on it. But the rebels are crushed. On my way here I taught them a lesson they will not easily forget.”

  “I am relieved to hear it,” Eleanor said tartly. She was aware that this conversation was being carried on purely on the surface, and that each was taking the measure of the other and wondering where they really stood. The air was almost crackling with the things they were leaving unsaid.

  “Would you like to see our new daughter?” she asked.

  “By all means,” Henry smiled, “and our other children.” He would not meet her eyes.

  “You will find them much grown,” she told him. “It is so long since you have seen them.”
It was a barb, and it hit home. She actually saw him wince.

  The baby was brought by the nurse and placed in the King’s arms. Henry gazed down at the copper-haired infant on his lap, with her chubby cheeks and gummy smile, and thought how like Eleanor she was. He chuckled at her, well satisfied, and gave her his blessing, his callused hand on her downy head.

  “She’s a pretty one,” he pronounced. “Fit to be a queen, which one day, no doubt, she will be. I hear that Louis at last has a son. Are you thinking what I am thinking?”

  “Am I to understand that you have abandoned your plan to marry Matilda and Eleanor in Germany?” Eleanor asked in astonishment. “I thought you were trying to discountenance Louis to pay him back for his support of Becket?”

  “I never pass up an opportunity to discountenance Louis, you know that, Eleanor!” Henry grinned, lightening the atmosphere a little. “But I did have hopes of one day annexing France to my domains. All dashed now, of course—if that boy lives. So we rattle Louis now, while planning for the future. His son will need a wife someday, and it would be to my advantage, and that of my heirs, to have an English queen on the French throne.”

  “It is a wise plan,” Eleanor had to concede.

  He nodded. “I think so. And as I haven’t changed my mind about the alliances I have negotiated for Matilda and Eleanor, I will be putting this little one forward as the future Queen of France. It will be a great destiny for you, sweeting,” he murmured, smiling down at the baby.

  “Well, I can only hope that the French court has livened up a bit by the time she gets there,” Eleanor said, her tone still tart.

 
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